There are pictures of me as a young child in my parents’ house. My mother moved there in 1941 after her Walworth home had been damaged in the London blitz. My parents had married in 1940 and, with my father away in the war, my mother continued to live in her mother’s house, in a street coloured ‘pink’ – Fairly comfortable: good ordinary earnings – in Booth’s Map Descriptive of London Poverty of 1898-9. My maternal grandfather was a printer. Although he died in 1926, his trade union provided well for his widow. She continued to rent the whole house, and brought up six children there, along with two grandchildren. They had a lodger, Uncle Jack, my grandmother’s brother. My family, on both sides, can be traced at least as far back as the 18th century in London. South of the river, Bermondsey and Shad Thames, Borough and Walworth. My father’s street was dark blue in Booth’s memorable map. Very poor, casual. Chronic want. My paternal grandfather was a docker on London’s corn wharves and died early, of pneumonocosis. My social, and political, DNA is rooted in the skilled working class of the inner city.
After the bombing, my mother and grandmother sought refuge in the suburbs. My mother refused to let my grandmother bring her furniture, claiming it was too large. ‘Can’t be much of a house,’ was my grandmother’s verdict. But my mother was paying the rent, and this was her first home as a married woman. She was calling the shots.
I look at pictures of the house now and what strikes me about my childhood home was how new it was. When I was born, in 1947, it was ten years old, if that, part of the straggling ‘ribbon’ developments of outer London which the inter-war London County Council hoped would be one solution to the chronic overcrowding of the inner city. But you had to be affluent to afford the rent, and the commute. London’s overcrowding was, by contrast, among the poorest: the unskilled and semi-skilled, for whom these private developments were unaffordable, and would do little to help. It needed state involvement to solve the slums and the post-war housing crisis, but that’s another story. My mother was a primary school teacher, and could afford the rent.
When I lived there, the pebbledash was fresh, the gardens full of builder’s rubble, the hedges rudimentary. A few years earlier, it had been countryside, farms and lanes and woodland. There was still woodland of sorts, scrubby remains of land gone to seed. There were no shrubs or trees in the gardens, no lawns or borders. The woodwork was painted dark green or brown, the pebbledash a dull, sandy beige. Black and white photographs compound its gloom.
Everyone else in that road were newcomers, too. What could that have been like, moving to a neighbourhood of strangers? Where had those other people come from? The men home from war had to find work, learn to live with wives whom they hadn’t seen for years, or had never lived with, children they’d not met. What went through their minds? What secrets and horrors did they suppress, what dreams did they embrace? Where were the tension points in those quintessentially and very new suburban lives, those uprooted, rootless families?
My parents never moved from that house. They couldn’t believe their luck.